Very, very few club sailors head out to the race course early. Most of us mingle on the shore, chatting, and then, when go time is getting close-ish we all head out together.
In fact, during my time at the sailing club on the Malahide Estuary, I can only think of two sailors that hit the water early with any kind of regularity (and neither was me, I'm sorry to say). Both these sailors were among the top five at the club, and I've often reflected that it is probably no coincidence.
Anyway, I can hardly lecture about getting onto the race course early, but you can draw your own conclusions about what you should be doing.
That said, there are certain things that I would do, almost no matter how little time I had before the start gun. The first was that I would head for one of the course marks. At the estuary club, the general set up was simple. The Race Officer would head out on the committee boat and anchor for the start/finish line. Then they'd lay the windward mark. Once they were happy with that, the other marks would be dropped. I'm sure it is the same for most clubs that don't have permanent marks.
This being the case, unless I was beating out to the race course, I would almost always head for a mark of the course, generally the windward mark. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, I could sight the second mark from the windward mark, and maybe even get a transit. This is super useful if you happen to be leading at the first mark, especially when sailing in the evening. If the sun happens to be low, and the second mark is in the direction of the setting sun then it can be impossible to see.
A transit also helps me to know if I am going high or low on the reach. I want to sail the course with the best VMG, and I also want to know what my best approach to the second mark is going to be - especially if I'm not leading. Knowing how low or high the reach is (if the second leg is a reach), and knowing what the planing conditions are (especially if it is marginal planing) can help with a lot of the decision making at that point in the race.
As I'm at the windward mark, I also get a chance to practice the run. Clubs often use a windward-leeward course or a triangle-sausage course because they're easy to set. Which means that there is almost always a run off the windward mark at some point in the race. By heading to the windward mark first I get the chance to check a couple of things;
- Which gybe is quickest? The course is almost never square, and the waves aren't either, so there is generally one gybe favoured over the other. I also get a sense of whether I'm quicker by the lee or broad reaching, and this helps with my strategy and tactical decisions.
- Which side of the course is quickest? On the estuary there was very little current (because of a bridge that regulated the water out and water in), so I would generally be looking for more breeze here. Of course, any information I gleaned would be useful for the beat too.
- How is my gybing? I would practice some gybes. I always like to do this, and I'll expand a little on that in a post next week.
- What's the shift pattern like? It's not so easy to check this on the run, but you can get a basic idea. I'll do more checking when I turn upwind and check my upwind settings.
If I have to sail out to the race course on a beat I'll also have a few things to check:
- How's my set-up? What kicker, cunningham, outhaul works best.
- What is the chop like? How sharp is it? What angles work best? Is it more head-on on one tack, and more side-on on the other?
- What is the shift pattern like? Is it oscillating quickly or slowly? Is there a persistent shift?
- What are my tacking angles? I get some compass readings and check to see what the mean angle is so I know when to tack on a shift.
- How are my tacks? I throw in a lot of tacks as I head out - better to get some of the bad ones out of the way before the start.
I will also head to the leeward mark if it has been laid, to have a look at how square the race course is and to practice a rounding or two. Oftentimes it hasn't been laid as it is generally the last mark to be dropped, in which case I'll head up the beat before going into my pre-start stuff.
All of these things can be done on the way to the start line, taking no extra time and very little extra effort. And if you do all these things you'll be better prepared for the race that 90% of the rest of the fleet in a club race.
Of course, if you're getting ready for a big event or race your preparation will have to be more in-depth, but these habits will stand you in good stead, and are a good foundation to build on.